Will the magic of the Harry Potter books and films translate to the Broadway stage?
Here's the answer, in many ways Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is an even more enchanting experience, because for the first time the magic of Hogwarts meets the magic of theatre.
Irish actress Geraldine Hughes, who plays the beloved Professor Minerva McGonagall (the character originally played by Maggie Smith in the films) is having the time of her life.
For the award-winning stage and screen actress, it's a big role in a $68 million dollar blockbuster, which is already the most expensive and very possibly the most ambitious hit show ever to open on Broadway (Tony voters agreed, nominating the show in nine categories).
But what makes Cursed Child really take flight (and my word there is a lot of flying) is the unexpectedly moving story.
I won't spoil it for you by revealing any of the details (there's a hashtag called #keepthesecrets to remind you not to) but suffice to say that at it's core Cursed Child is all about the importance of friendship and how families either pull together or snap.
The friendship in question is the unlikely bond that blossoms between Harry Potter's troubled middle kid Albus and his best friend Scorpius (played by Anthony Boyle, 23, originally from the Poleglass housing estate in West Belfast).
Scorpius is the feared son of Draco Malfoy, one of the most hated figures in the Potter-verse. As the play begins Scorpius is a social outcast and Albus is fast on his way to joining him in teenage exile, fighting a battle on two fronts at home and at school in Hogwarts.
With Hughes, 48, aged up to play the beloved Headmistress and with Boyle playing one half of the most pivotal relationship in the play (for which he has already deservedly won an Olivier Award for Best Supporting Actor) the heart of this Cursed Child has a distinctly Irish beat to it.
But there's even more to consider. Both Hughes and Boyle grew up in gritty West Belfast neighborhoods (in Hughes' case when the Troubles were at their height) so there is something especially magical in the fact that they have made it all the way to Broadway now, where night after night they keep the audience in their very talented hands.
“I'm so thrilled to just be a part of it,” Hughes tells IrishCentral. “It's really astonishing to be part of a show that's this unprecedented. I went to London to see it on the West End when I got cast and I was astounded by what I saw. Then when the Broadway company got together the ensemble of people who literally move this show are my heroes.”
The Potter experience starts from the moment you step into the theatre. The Lyric has been turned into a facsimile of Hogwarts, right down to the vaulted ceilings and velvet corridors. It's as if the theatre is another character in the play, there isn't an inch of it that hasn't been transformed by the designers.
“It feels very surreal still, even though we've been playing now for a while,” Hughes agrees. “The Lyric was entirely refurbished for the show, so I feel like we're living in this red velvet cocoon, it's just so beautiful. Then to have the privileged to act within that massive production design, the lighting, the sets and the costumes - I've never been a part of anything so big.”
Onstage (for about seven hours in total) there wasn't a single dropped cue in performance. Everything ran so smoothly that the world that's being created leaps to life before your eyes.
“It's a little overwhelming at times,” Hughes confesses. “I don't want to sound too over the top, but it's something that has never happened before, we actually have a bespoke theatre for a play. I mean how is that even possible? The venue is like another character in the show. Every single detail has been designed down to the last stitch. Someone created all that for the other major character in the play, the audience who show up every night.”
Then there's the audience, she adds. To have that much passion coming at you every day is unbelievable. They're giving so much back to the performers. For Hughes it's a heady time in her professional and personal life.
“Anthony Boyle is an actor from Poleglass, and Des Kennedy is the international director and he's from Twinbrook, and there's me from the Falls Road, and we are all big parts of this production. So you can imagine I have had a couple of moments since we started. It's been quite a journey to find that happiness in life, but as I told my partner Conor the other night, I have never been happier.”
A show is only as good as the company of people behind it, and that starts at the top with J.K. Rowling, then the producers, and the production team, Hughes says. “Look I've met a lot of famous people in my life but she was something else. She created all of this. I mean Jack Thorne wrote an incredible script and director John Tiffany collaborated with them too, but when she came in to meet us I was stunned.”
Rowling was wearing a green dress and had dyed her hair red. “I thought she looked like an Irish colleen. She's so accessible as a person. She carries a real humility with her. I did not get to have an in-depth conversation because there's no time for that but I did say hello.”
Opening night on Broadway was extraordinarily special for Rowling, one of the best of her life she tweeted. “She came backstage after the performance and took a picture. I could see how moved she was.”
Cursed Child is a thoughtful investigation of parenthood, of father son relationships, but the friendship between the two boys, that relationship is the key to it all. Without giving too much away, for the best of reasons and the worst of prejudices, Albus' and Scorpius' parents aren't thrilled about their friendship and place serious obstacles between them.
“There's an incredible conversation in the play where the two lads really hash it out, they talk everything that's happening to them, they talk about hurt and they talk about love and forgiveness and all in this one conversation. They decide they have to try and fix it and they say I can't do it without you.”
What other $68 million dollar franchise puts something as simple as friendship at its heart? Hughes agrees. “It's wonderful that the director has created incredible pyrotechnics and people are flying and so on, but people are so moved by the story. At the heart of it its about being a daddy and a mommy and a friend and a brother, but there's so much of it that's about loss and love. It's a magical experience.”
Although the show is around seven hours long in total Hughes admits she feels very looked after as an actor by the directing team. Enough to simply enjoy the ride. “Sometimes I stand backstage and I watch the magic happening on the stage, the illusions they came up with, it's all actor driven. We're still be awed by it ourselves."
It's rare to have your work and personal life in balance, Hughes admits, grateful for her good fortune. “When you come from a war zone and you learn to stick with it it's astonishing what your heart can be open to later on. I'll go to this job for the next year at least and its fantastic, it's like Christmas every day.”
From the Falls Road at the height of the Troubles to casting spells and creating magic on the Broadway stage. No wonder she believes in magic.